One of the greatest challenges I face as an ELA teacher is the increased complexity of text that my student are expected to comprehend. The high lexile levels that sixth graders are supposed to comprehend keeps me awake at night. One way that I am trying to bridge the gap between the old and new lexiles is by boosting my students' vocabulary. The CCSS refer to teaching 3 different tiers of vocabulary. I will be teaching the ELA academic vocabulary of Tier 3 throughout my instruction, but I also feel that it is crucial to strategically teach Tier 2 words that are present in many different types of text. This is one of my students' weakest areas in general and the area that needs to be increased in order to raise their lexiles.
I have a plan of attack. I am using the Wordly Wise program which our district has adopted, but you could do something similar with another program. First, I made a risky decision to work above grade level. I decided to use the grade 7 program instead of grade 6 because it is geared toward a lexile of 1000, which is the appropriate place for my students.
The first week my students used this program, I was really second guessing my decision. Their grades on assignments and the test were not great, and I thought about going down a level. I stuck with it, and now I am on my 3rd cycle of it. It is getting easier, and they are improving each time. Students are starting to use their newly acquired words in speaking and writing, which is so super exciting to me!!!
Each of the Wordly Wise lessons has 15 words which is a challenging amount. On the first day of a new word list, I read through the words with the students having them read the words several times along with me. I also have them read the definitions aloud as well (all together as a group). Then, I give a simplified student friendly version of the definition if needed plus several examples. If possible, I have students act out the word, give an example, or speak in a way that demonstrates the meaning.
For example, when the word infuriate came up, we'd read the definition in an angry voice. With impartial, we would say the word while pretending to use a judge's gavel. With aggravate, the students told me who aggravated them and why. I try to link the words and their meanings in any way possible.
Once we have gone through all 15 word like that, I give them an assignment to help them learn the meaning of the words. I try to vary the assignments and expose the students to many different ways to learn words. I am compiling these resources in this vocabulary section.
Wordly Wise comes with an intense vocabulary packet that I assign as well. My students have two weeks to complete it. At the end of the first week, I give them a spelling test for the 15 words. I do this because we are still required to give a spelling test and provide a separate spelling grade for each student. At the end of the second week, the packet is due, and the students take a multiple choice vocabulary test.
One reason I think that Wordly Wise works is that the packet gives the student the opportunity to look at the word in different ways. They do write a definition in the first section, but they also identify synonyms and antonyms, create analogies, look at word parts, examine Greek and Latin roots, and finally understand the word in context of a story or information piece. The program is spiraled so that every week they are reviewing several words from previous weeks. The work is extremely challenging at first, but once the students begin to understand what is expected, they are become more comfortable with the challenge. I have been doing the vocabulary in context with my students because so many were struggling with it at first. This section forces them to use the vocabulary word in a meaningful, complete (gasp!) sentence. I think it is fantastic, but my students do struggle.
Most of my students agree that if they do the packet carefully, they learn the words without much extra studying. They are using each word around 5 times throughout besides the use in additional activities that I assign them.
After two weeks of working with a particular word list, I will test the students using the test provided by Wordly Wise. This test is NOT EASY!!! All of the questions are multiple choice, and the first section are straight definitions. The students usually do pretty well on this part. The next section either consists of antonyms and synonyms or analogies (eek!) The students really, really struggle with analogies even though we do them almost every day in our daily work. It is just an abstract way of thinking and some students are not developmentally there yet. I still think that it is important to keep working on them because I know that as they grow this year, the analogies will become easier. I do have students that do very well on their vocabulary tests, but I have a small portion of maybe 5 to 10 out of the 83 students that I see that really struggle. Some of these students are not completing their packets or studying. I am getting ready this week to modify the word lists for about 3 of my students who are putting forth effort and still falling behind. I do find that the majority of my students improve each week and have been motivated to study and do well.
Here is the answer sheet I've been using.
Something crazy has happened since I began experimenting with teaching rigorous vocabulary in a strategic way....
The students are starting to use these words! On a regular basis! By choice! The words show up in their writing and in conversations. They constantly point them out to me in their own books, or tell me how they heard someone use the word. I reward my students for using or finding the words by giving them character cash, which is our school's reward system. They can use the cash to buy all kind of wonderful prizes each month. With or without the reward, I find that my students are excited to use and see the words. It's like they are making the connection that these are actual real words that occur in real life. They are not some made up school words that they have to learn for a test. They actually exist! They always seem shocked to realize that! My class is becoming a culture that is immersed in rich, meaningful words. We are sharing them with each other, and encouraging each other to use them often and correctly. It is absolutely fantastic!
I feel that the key to comprehending complex texts lies in increasing student knowledge of words. I am not saying that you have to use Wordly Wise, although it is awesome! I think the same results can come from any program that is used with fidelity. The difference with Wordly Wise is that the students use the words in ways that require higher level thinking. They really must understand the intricacies of the word and cannot rely on rote memorization alone. I am excited to test my students' lexiles again in December to monitor their growth and test my theory. Until then, we will keep learning new words and challenging each other to use them!